Tobin Heath is opening up about the 2020 NWSL expansion draft and the heartbreak that came with it.
At the time, Heath was playing with Manchester United in the Women’s Super League, with the Portland Thorns retaining her NWSL rights. Heath, who had been with the club since their inaugural season in 2013, was selected by Racing Louisville in the expansion draft after going unprotected by Portland.
In the latest episode of “The RE-CAP Show,” Heath called her selection by Louisville “the biggest heartbreak of my life.”
“For me, playing in Portland was one of the greatest honors of my life. It gave me a childhood dream,” she said. “It was a big surprise to me to learn I was picked up in the expansion process. And I will say, I envisioned myself playing in Portland for the rest of my career.
“I envisioned myself living in Portland for the rest of my life and putting all of my football and everything that community gave me back into the club.”
While she was playing with Manchester United during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was told “by all parties” in the NWSL that she didn’t have to worry about the expansion draft. But she knew as soon as she got the phone call that she had been picked up.
“Immediately, I was kind of in denial,” she said, noting that she told her agent to tell Racing Louisville that “there’s no way I will ever show up.” She held true to that, continuing to play overseas before her rights were eventually traded to OL Reign. She played five games for the Seattle-based club in 2022 before being sidelined by injury.
“In one way, it had nothing to do with that particular club, but it had everything to do with the club I was currently on,” she said. “I have never cried harder in my life. I couldn’t console myself.”
Both Heath and co-host Christen Press also talked more generally about the expansion draft and the effect that it can have on players.
“Sometimes players are really excited about it. Sometimes players want to move,” Heath said. “So then there’s the very opposite of that, where maybe there’s a player that has signed a long-term contract with a club, has invested time there, has put down roots there, and they are left unprotected and therefore could be picked up.
“And I think there’s a little bit of chicken and egg that happens, where clubs play some games seeing which players they can leave unprotected and still have the feeling that they won’t get picked.”
Press talked about the issue with the NWSL basing its structure, including the expansion draft, off American sports leagues such as the NBA and NHL, rather than mirroring the European soccer system.
“My issue with our league being based off those leagues is multifaceted, but one big problem, I think, when it comes to reallocating or the way that players are moved around and traded around, it doesn’t work for this league because the players aren’t getting paid enough,” she said. “All of the moving pieces, which in this case are human beings, really matter.”